For me, a fun part of any visit to Copenhagen is dropping in on the alternative community of Christiania.
In 1971, the original 700 Christianians established squatters’ rights in an abandoned military barracks just a 10-minute walk from the Danish parliament building. A generation later, this “free city” still stands — an ultra-human mishmash of idealists, hippies, potheads, non-materialists, and happy children (600 adults, 200 kids, 200 cats, 200 dogs, 2 parrots, and 17 horses). There are even a handful of Willie Nelson-type seniors among the 180 remaining here from the original takeover. And an amazing thing has happened: The place has become the third-most-visited sight among tourists in Copenhagen. Move over, Little Mermaid.
“Pusher Street” (named for the sale of soft drugs here) is Christiania’s main drag. Get beyond this touristy side of Christiania, and you’ll find a fascinating, ramshackle world of moats and earthen ramparts, alternative housing, cozy tea houses, carpenter shops, hippie villas, children’s playgrounds, peaceful lanes, and people who believe that “to be normal is to be in a straitjacket.” A local slogan claims, “Kun døde fisk flyder med strømmen” — “Only dead fish swim with the current.”
Stepping into this squatter town of 800 people, you feel like you’re entering another world. As you walk in, the sign welcomes you to Christiania. When you leave, the flipside of that same sign says, “You are now entering the EU.”
Tourists are entirely welcome at Christiania, because they’ve become a major part of the economy. Visitors react in very different ways to the place. Some see dogs, dirt, and dazed people. Others see a haven of peace, freedom, and no taboos. Locals will remind judgmental Americans (whose country incarcerates more than a quarter of the world’s prison inmates) that a society must make the choice: Allow for alternative lifestyles…or build more prisons.
For the first few years, junkies were tolerated. But that led to violence and polluted the mellow ambience residents envisioned. In 1979, the junkies were expelled — an epic confrontation in the community’s folk history now — and since then, the symbol of a fist breaking a syringe is as prevalent as the leafy marijuana icon. Hard drugs are emphatically forbidden in Christiania.
Pusher Street was once lined with stalls selling marijuana, joints, and hash. Residents intentionally destroyed the stalls in 2004 to reduce the risk of Christiania being disbanded by the government. Now there’s a small stretch of Pusher Street dubbed the “Green Light District” where pot is being openly sold. Signs announce three rules here: 1. Have fun; 2. No photos; and 3. No running — “because it makes people nervous.”